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Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium: Diving Into Success

Exceptional customer service at this Kennewick, Wash., retailer comes down to honesty, respect and kindness.


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Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium

Standing at the edge of the dolphin pool, Dorothy Hunter watched as a soda can tumbled into the shimmering depths, rolling before it finally settled on the bottom.

“If a foreign object is thrown into the pool, you have to go in and get it out with no fear of the animal, because they can choke on it,” said her interviewer.

Hunter was applying for a position as a marine mammal trainer at a local aquarium in Rapid City, S.D. The can demonstration served as a portion of the interview process, and dolphins were about to join Hunter’s extensive list of animal pursuits, including dog and horse trainer, and rescue and zoo volunteer.

“I jumped in the water, got the can out, and they hired me,” she said. “I was there for five years.”

Hunter’s varied employment history also includes being a nuclear chemical operator at a facility in Washington. However, ownership of a pet store remained a lifelong dream. In 2008, that vision became reality with the opening of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, Pet Product News International’s 2015-2016 Retailer of the Year for Outstanding Customer Service and Engagement.

A second location followed in 2012. However, in fall of 2015, a decision was made to consolidate the two stores, and soon the spacious 11,000-square-foot Kennewick store, adjacent to a Costco, began welcoming customers.

“It has been the best thing in the world for us,” Hunter said.

Outstanding customer service ... “comes down to treating others the way you want to be treated, whether it’s an animal or a person,” Hunter said. “Customer service is really just honesty, respect, sheer kindness and helping pet lovers find what they are looking for, even to the point of searching the Internet and ordering an item. You take care of your customers; it’s that simple.”

Serving Animals and Their People

Hunter’s extensive experience with an array of creatures also translates to outstanding customer service in the human arena.

“It comes down to treating others the way you want to be treated, whether it’s an animal or a person,” Hunter said.

Moreover, at Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, it’s all about the “wow” factor, and for Hunter, that means reaching beyond normal expectations to provide a shopping experience customers are likely to share with others.

“Customer service is really just honesty, respect, sheer kindness and helping pet lovers find what they are looking for, even to the point of searching the Internet and ordering an item,” she said. “You take care of your customers; it’s that simple.”

Indeed, these ethics are exemplified in the culture of the store, and in the attitudes of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium associates. A passion for animals and an outgoing personality are sought-after attributes in a new hire.

“We want outgoing, confident and charismatic staff members,” she said. “We can teach the business side.”

With knowledge being an integral component to stellar customer service, education is taken seriously. Moreover, Hunter noted that teamwork between food manufacturer and retailer, including employees, is essential in product promotion.

“In the pet industry’s big picture, we are a team, all of us,” Hunter said. “We are their ambassadors. If we are not promoting their products, they are not going to sell.”

In addition to training with manufacturers, employees study Pet Store Pro and spend time researching nutritional books and articles. Once training is completed, graduates pocket a $3-an-hour raise.

After hitting the books, having a good time is an essential component of the store’s lifestyle, and games, such as Pass the Buck, keep things lively on the sales floor.

“We start with a $20 bill, and the staff member with the highest dollar sale carries that $20, and it passes from one person to another during the course of the day,” Hunter said. “At the end of the day, the salesperson holding that bill keeps it.”

“It’s just fun—we like fun,” she added.

 

Making Awareness Fun

Folding a little lightheartedness into ingredient awareness, Hunter took to YouTube with an unconventional method of conveying an important message. She ate dog food for a month.

“There are brands out there that are safe for human consumption, and we are proud to carry those foods,” she said. “We shared the story, and it went viral. We heard from people all over the country who didn’t know about reading ingredient panels, and I spent a lot of time on the phone with these folks.

Pet nutrition is central at Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, and food selections are free of corn, wheat, soy, BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin and propylene glycol, with nothing sourced in China. Presented in wide, neatly organized aisles, 5,000 square feet of floor space is devoted to pet food.

“The store is actually two suites with an opening in between,” Hunter said. “One suite holds food and another supplies. A downstairs area stocks small animal supplies, reptiles and reptile supplies.”

While small mammals are not sold at the store, rescue rabbits are available at the store’s satellite adoption center, and the store manager breeds and hand raises leopard geckos, which are available for sale.

Supplies for dogs and cats, with an emphasis on USA-made items, are stocked in 4,000 square feet of space. Boutique and gift items occupy a railed upstairs area that overlooks the sales floor below.

“We carry everything,” Hunter said.

Shoppers enjoy carryout service, and for those unable to visit the store in person, free delivery service is available.

Adoption days for dogs and cats take place regularly. Further support for homeless pets includes Brittney’s Toy Box, in memory of Hunter’s late dog. The collection bin, placed within the store, gathers donated toys, beds, blankets, treats and food deposited by customers to be distributed to shelters and rescues.

Pet owners welcoming a new four-legged family member into their home receive a voucher from the adoptive shelter, offering a 10 percent discount on a store purchase. Once the voucher is redeemed, $5 is donated back to that shelter.

Beyond dogs, cats and rabbits, Hunter also rescues and rehabilitates parrots in her home.

“I rescue them one at a time,” she said.

The Hunter home also serves as a nursery for abandoned baby squirrels discovered by local tree trimmers. The rescued infants are bottle fed, eventually moving to a “halfway house” in the yard, where they ease back into their natural habitat.

Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium is a presence out in the community, and that involvement includes sponsoring events that benefit animals in need. For example, the Mr. Bunny Easter Egg Hunt, held at a local park, offers a joyful twist on a timeless game, as ebullient four-legged searchers sniff out wrapped treats scattered on the lawn. A local shelter hops in to raise funds and pet adoption awareness.

Other events benefiting shelters and rescues include sponsorship of the popular Paw’s Rods, Dogs and Hogs Car Show, created by Hunter and held at a local park. Beyond vehicle displays, the show ensures a good time for everyone with raffles, pet adoptions and food.

The Hunters are car enthusiasts. Hunter’s husband restores cars, and the couple enjoys their Harley Davidsons.

“You have to play,” Hunter said. “You can’t come up with all these great ideas sitting in the store all day.”

Being sited next to a big-box store has had a positive effect on business, as customers seeking higher-quality items keep things competitive. For instance, cat trees might cost a bit more at Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, but with the higher quality, sales have been brisk. “People who shop at Costco shop with us for their pet needs,” said Dorothy Hunter, co-owner of Paw's. “We just recently won an award from the Chamber of Commerce called Running With the Bulls for just that reason.” 

Getting the Word Out

Customers who place a store-supplied sign in their front yard that says “I Support Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium” receive a $5 gift certificate to the store.

“After 30 days, they return the sign, collect their gift certificate, and the sign goes to someone else,” Hunter said. “Our signs constantly move around town.”

This unique marketing approach keeps advertising costs low, which is reflected in product pricing, she added.

Seasonal displays not only highlight products, but also promote a great time. For example, Valentine’s Day celebrated southern hospitality with overall- or blue jean-clad staff members serving sweet tea to customers.

“We had a sign that said, ‘For the week of Valentine’s Day, we are celebrating southern hospitality, so please don’t be offended if we call you honey, darlin’ or sweetie,’” Hunter said.

A St. Patrick’s Day display not only launched a new pet food, but also promoted a little “end of the rainbow” fun.

“We hung streamers to look like a rainbow, with a cutout of a leprechaun next to a ‘pot of gold’ fashioned from bags of the new food,” Hunter said. “The pot was filled with food samples, gold coins and shamrock rubber duckies.”

Lucky customers and their pets beamed through the leprechaun’s cutout face opening, taking part in a photo contest to win one year’s worth of Natural Balance pet food.

The 2016 annual Customer Appreciation Sale, held in May, served as the ribbon cutting and grand opening celebration for the new store. The soiree, officiated by members of the Kennewick Chamber of Commerce, also offered deep discounts for pet-loving shoppers.

As an educational platform, monthly appearances on the “Good Morning, Wake Up Your Pets” segment of a local pet-friendly television station bring pets and pet needs to the community forefront.

“We might talk about pet safety or bring lizards in and provide education about them as pets,” Hunter said. “It’s all about education. We like to highlight something neat and interesting.”

 

Playing With the Big Boys

Being sited next to a big-box store has had a positive effect on business, as customers seeking higher-quality items keep things competitive. For instance, cat trees might cost a bit more at Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, but with the higher quality, sales have been brisk.

“People who shop at Costco shop with us for their pet needs,” Hunter said. “We just recently won an award from the Chamber of Commerce called Running With the Bulls for just that reason.” 

 

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Pet Product News.

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